This film from Wang Xiaoshuai and Lone Scherfig’s Dogme 95 effort Italian for Beginners were the surprise packages of last year’s Berlinale. Beijing Bicycle won the Jury Grand Prix Silver Bear and Italian for Beginners the Jury Prize Silver Bear and the Prize of the International Film Critics, and before the festival was over they had been bought by, respectively, Sony and Miramax.
I still think Miramax got the better film. Beijing Bicycle is an imitation-is-the-sincerest-form-of-flattery salute to Vittorio de Sica’s 1949 classic The Bicycle Thief. A young man from the provinces, Guei (Cui Lin), arrives in Beijing and gets both a coveted (despite the cranky customers) job as a bicycle delivery boy and the use of a shiny new silver mountain bike. At 10 yuan per delivery, he’ll have to make just 60 trips to own the bike outright. Then the bike is stolen, and he has to scour the city for it. Meanwhile, student Jian is desperate for a bicycle, but his father reneges on repeated promises to buy him one. Finally Jian snags a used model, whereupon he moves up in the eyes of his better-off classmates and even gets a girlfriend. Of course, it’s Guei’s bike.
Wang has pointed out that "the bicycle has a special meaning for China" — indeed, it’s to Chinese youth what an automobile is to American teenagers. So the tug-of-war between Guei and Jian is no small matter. Yet eventually the back-and-forth goings of the vehicle wore me down, as did the failure of the two main characters to talk to (and learn from) each other, the easy cynicism with which Beijing is depicted (a touch of the good will Zhang Yimou found in Not One Less would have been welcome), and Wang’s reluctance, in Berlin, to acknowledge the influence of de Sica’s masterpiece. Still, this is a serious, thoughtful film — and it might just be the second-best bicycle movie ever.